Tagging scheme frees killers and drug dealers early from jail

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The Independent Online

Thousands of convicted killers, violent criminals, drug dealers and sex offenders have been released early from prison under the Government's electronic tagging scheme, according to figures released last night.

The Tories accused Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, of breaking his promises to be "tough on crime" and to exclude "serious and sexual offenders" from the tagging scheme.

Figures collated by Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, showed that the 18,000 prisoners released early on tags included 43 people convicted of manslaughter; five of attempted murder; 2,258 of wounding; 2,207 of drug dealing; 21 of cruelty to children; 18 of sex offences; 1,697 of burglary; 717 of robbery and 18 of cruelty to animals.

Miss Widdecombe said that almost 200 people had committed further offences while they were tagged, including two rapes, 66 burglaries and thefts and 32 assaults. "The tagging scheme has been a disaster from day one and should be scrapped," she said. "Jack Straw conned the public when he said he would get tough on the causes of crime. We now know he has been endangering the public by the early release of thousands of convicted criminals.

"It is already an insult to victims and their families that violent and sexual offenders are set free early on tags. It is even more disgusting to learn that other people are suffering while these criminals should still be in jail."

The Home Office did not dispute the figures, but insisted that many of the tagged prisoners would have been released within days or weeks anyway. Under the scheme, criminals serving less than four years in prison can be released up totwo months early.

A spokesman said that only one in three prisoners for whom tagging was considered passed the "risk assessment" test and were allowed out early. The Government believed tagging provided a better transition between jail and the community, which reduced the chances of people reoffending.

In the Commons, Mr Straw accused Miss Widdecombe of "hollow mischief making" as he outlined plans to extend tagging under the Crime and Disorder Bill. He pointed out that the Tories had backed the original scheme, which he insisted had proved "very successful".

Mr Straw conceded there was "an element of risk with any arrangement that involves the release of prisoners" but said tagging had a compliance rate of 80 per cent, which compared favourably with other community sentences. He said tagging was a "valuable added protection" for the public, giving better protection for victims of domestic violence or stalking.

A Home Office spokeswoman said prisoners on the sex offenders' register and prisoners sentenced to more than four years' detention were not eligible for tagging.

She said the seriousness and circumstances of the offence were reflected in the sentence passed by the court. "The fact that these prisoners were sentenced to four years or less shows that the court has already taken a view that the offences were relatively less serious." she said.

"Protection of the public is paramount, and very stringent assessments must be passed before any prisoner is released on licence."